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Obscure six-county development authority collects fees, hired lobbyist, meets privately

Don Bolia, left, the board chair of Decide DeKalb and the Joint Development Authority of Metropolitan Atlanta, and Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs and a longtime lobbyist for JDAMA.

An obscure joint development authority of six metro Atlanta counties has ignored state financial reporting requirements and open meetings laws for years while collecting and spending public money: $15,000 a year in membership fees, a $10,000-a-year lobbyist, and the ability of companies in member counties to get job-based tax breaks.

The Joint Development Authority of Metropolitan Atlanta (JDAMA) is composed of leaders of development authorities in Clayton, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Henry and Rockdale counties. The Development Authority of Fulton County (DAFC) is in the midst of a financial scandal involving or spotlighting figures who turned up with JDAMA as well: disgraced former DAFC board chair Bob Shaw, who long chaired JDAMA, too; current DAFC board chair Michel “Marty” Turpeau, who recently served as JDAMA’s secretary and treasurer; and Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a lobbyist who long worked for DAFC and also collected that $10,000 from JDAMA.

Don Bolia, chair of Decide DeKalb and the Joint Development Authority of Metropolitan Atlanta.

Shaw became ineligible to serve on JDAMA late last year and was replaced as chair in January by Don Bolia, another prominent lobbyist who also chairs the DeKalb development authority, known as Decide DeKalb. Bolia, who has served on JDAMA for roughly three years, including as its treasurer, said he thought it was an informal discussion group and was unaware of its various legal obligations and relation to tax breaks until informed by SaportaReport.

“You are bringing me news. I did not know that,” Bolia said when told that JDAMA, like all joint authorities, is required to file registration and financial reports with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs but has not since 2017 and 2018. “I did not even know if we were a legal authority or just called ourselves an authority.”

“Now that I know we need to file paperwork with DCA, we’re going to do that, so thank you,” Bolia said. He also said has been advised that the Georgia Open Records and Open Meetings Acts apply to JDAMA, though he added he is uncertain about that status. Those state laws apply to any government-created body, with the website of Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr specifying county-created authorities among them. A 2011 white paper on joint authorities by expert Georgia attorney Dan McRae noted that open meetings and records laws apply to them, and at least one, in Camden County, publishes its minutes and has a public-comment policy for its meetings.

The JDAMA does not even have a website and apparently never gives public notice or publishes minutes of its quarterly meetings. “As you pointed out, we should probably be notifying the public of these meetings…,” Bolia said.

Bolia could not immediately provide recent meeting minutes or a financial statement, and a Clayton authority staffer who is paid a stipend to staff JDAMA did not respond to an open records request. The latest JDAMA financial report on file with DCA, dating to fiscal/calendar year 2016, showed it had $74,230.69 in cash and no other assets, and claimed to have no income or expenditures.

Each JDAMA member county pays an annual membership fee of $2,500, according to officials with the DeKalb, Henry and Rockdale development authorities.

The scandal at the DAFC revolves around Shaw, who was forced off the board after the discovery he and some other board members had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in legally questionable “per diem” payments. Bolia said that he does not think Shaw was paid for his JDAMA work.

“Based on everything I know, based on looking at the treasurer’s report, to my knowledge, he never received a per diem, was never paid, was strictly a volunteer like everyone,” Bolia said of Shaw.

Bolia said he is not paid for his work on the boards of either JDAMA or Decide DeKalb. “We get paid zero per diems. I think I actually pay for my own parking,” said Bolia.

The DAFC scandal followed years of controversy about board secrecy and the appropriateness of its tax breaks. Shaw could not be reached for comment.

Spotlighted by the DAFC scandal was Shaw’s previous business relationship with Paul and the authority’s practice of hiring lobbyists, which is uncommon among the many similar authorities around Georgia. Paul’s firm RP Communications, often doing business as iSquared Communications, was hired as DAFC’s lobbyist and marketing agency around 2009 and continued until this year. Prior to that, Shaw has been a paid consultant to the firm and continued to be touted on its website and to use its email for DAFC business long afterward. However, Shaw recused himself from discussions and votes related to Paul’s contracts.

Rusty Paul, left, the mayor of Sandy Springs and a lobbyist, and former DAFC chairman Bob Shaw.

State records show that Paul was registered as a JDAMA lobbyist in 2006 and again for 2019 up to this year. According to a notice about Paul’s 2018 contract approval published after the fact in the Fulton Daily Report — the only public notice about JDAMA appearing in that legal organ’s online archives — Shaw recused himself from the discussion. Paul said in a phone interview that JDAMA paid him $10,000 a year to provide a report on relevant state legislation during each General Assembly session. Paul and Bolia said JDAMA did not seek to advocate for any policies.

“All I’ve done for them is, basically, legislative tracking [and] reporting,” said Paul. “… I don’t think I’ve ever attended a single Joint Development Authority meeting. I can’t tell you what they did.”

Bolia indicated that JDAMA might reconsider the use of Paul as a lobbyist, but Paul said he already considers himself done with the end of the latest session in April. Paul said it was his decision and has nothing to do with Shaw leaving JDAMA.

“I’m winding down my business. … It’s a time-of-life thing for me,” said Paul, who has spoken publicly of retirement in recent years but is also currently running for re-election as Sandy Springs mayor.

Despite JDAMA’s virtual invisibility to the public, it also had various lobbyists registered with the state in 2006 through 2011 and in 2017. In that 2006-2011 period, they included Shaw himself.

Turpeau, who replaced Shaw as DAFC board chair, also serves on JDAMA automatically by virtue of his role. Turpeau’s LinkedIn profile describes him as secretary and treasurer of JDAMA, but it is unclear whether he still holds those offices. Bolia said he is unsure who the other officers are, and Turpeau did not respond to a comment request nor to an open records request direct to him in his presumed role as JDAMA secretary.

Meanwhile, Turpeau has been publicly presenting himself as a reformer of the DAFC in the wake of Shaw’s leadership. At the JDAMA, Bolia indicated an interest in doing the same. Beyond cleaning up the paperwork and lack of public notice, Bolia said he believes it can be a “regional platform” for discussions based on the usefulness of recent presentation on such topics as federal opportunity zones.

“As chair, I want to use the [Joint] Development Authority as a platform for regional growth, and I think it’s a great way for all of Georgia to collaborate with the Georgia Department of Economic Development [and] other agencies, and showcase how it’s a great place to do business.”

JDAMA’s origins and other obscure authorities

JDAMA is among at least 20 joint authorities around the state dating to a 1990s boom in the quasi-independent government bodies. The proliferation at that time was such that an Atlanta Journal-Constitution political columnist in 1997 mocked them as “crazy” by simply listing dozens of them — including JDAMA — while noting there were at least 190 “authorities.” Since then, many of the joint authorities have fallen off the radar and out of public scrutiny and maybe even state attention. Three different state agencies could not immediately say what JDAMA’s lack of registration meant for the organization and its members.

Under state law, every Georgia county commission can form a development authority, the most significant and sometimes controversial power of which can be granting property tax abatements to real estate developers by issuing tax-exempt bonds to fund projects. (Many authorities, like DAFC, are self-funded by fees on those bond deals.) Joint development authorities are simply team-ups of county authorities — whose board chairs and presidents/executive directors automatically become its board members — and may or may not have similar powers.

One automatic benefit to any county represented in a joint authority is that it gets an extra $500 added to the state’s formula of providing tax credits for five years for each job created in certain types of company openings and relocations. That can mean millions of dollars in tax breaks for large employers. The one exception to the rule: a county is ineligible if it is a member of more than one joint authority; that applies to DeKalb, which belongs to yet another little-known team-up with Gwinnett and Newton.

The JDAMA was formed in 1995 as a power trio of Clayton, Douglas and Fulton. The county commissions restricted JDAMA’s powers by not letting it issue bonds. Instead, it apparently was intended mostly to market the counties and tout the jobs tax credit. A 1996 AJC story attempting to link that summer’s Atlanta Olympics to plastic factory development said the newly formed JDAMA had made its “first marketing foray” — a junket to a trade show called “Plastics Fair-Chicago ’96.”

Over the years, counties have come and gone from JDAMA, but the mission remained similar. A November 2000 AJC article reported that JDAMA was up to nine members — having added Coweta, DeKalb, Fayette, Henry, Rockdale and Spalding — and was jetting off to Vegas for the COMDEX computer convention. The idea was to “try to bring high-tech businesses like Microsoft and Intel to the area,” reported the AJC, apparently unaware that Microsoft had ceased exhibiting at the waning convention.

In more recent years, JDAMA became virtually invisible and apparently fell under the sway of Shaw and the DAFC. The one place JDAMA was regularly mentioned in public was the DAFC’s little-read annual reports, where it was frequently described as “critical” or “indispensable” without explanation. The reports also sometimes listed JDAMA staff members and described DAFC’s own staff and attorneys as “executive support” to it. (A stray, and surprising, semi-public appearance was the JDAMA filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Atlanta Botanical Garden in a 2019 guns-rights case where it had banned someone from carrying a firearm on its property.)

The JDAMA apparently continued to meet quarterly, with hosting duties rotating among member counties in a format that included a presentation on local efforts. Other staff and board members of the development authorities sometimes attend, and the DAFC sometimes mentions JDAMA meeting dates in its board meetings, but not how the public might attend.

JDAMA has been meeting virtually during the pandemic, Bolia said. A meeting scheduled for July 13, to be hosted by Rockdale’s development authority, was canceled due to a leadership change there, Bolia said. The next meeting is scheduled for sometime in October and will be in-person, Bolia said. A meeting schedule obtained by SaportaReport says Decide DeKalb is scheduled to host that meeting, but Bolia said it is to be determined.

Mikisha Calloway, a staff member of the Clayton authority, serves as the paid staffer for JDAMA, according to Bolia. However, it was sometimes hard to tell where JDAMA itself was based, with various documents using the addresses of the Clayton or Fulton authorities. Recent meeting agendas obtained by SaportaReport show JDAMA using a post office box in the Clayton community of Rex, and Calloway responded to basic questions via her personal email address.

The required paperwork filings with the state DCA have fallen by the wayside and the JDAMA no longer appears on its formal list of Georgia authorities. According to DCA, the JDAMA’s most recent registration was for 2017 and its most recent financial statement was from fiscal year 2016. Under a pandemic-extended deadline, JDAMA has until Sept. 30 to file for fiscal year 2020.

However, the legal effects, if any, of the failure to file that paperwork are unclear. The DCA, the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Georgia Department of Revenue all pointed at each other for answers, none of which came. According to the bare language of state law, joint authorities that fail to register can’t incur debt or credit, and those without financial reports on file may be unable to get state funds. There is also a legal requirement for the body to be “an active, bona fide joint authority” with quarterly meetings and an “operational business plan,” but those terms are not defined.

When Shaw left the DAFC chair position last year, he became ineligible to serve on JDAMA. Bolia said that “as a nod for his years of service,” Shaw was named “chairman emeritus” and can still attend, “but he has no legal voting authority.”

Bolia told Decide DeKalb staff that Shaw asked him to take over as JDAMA chair, according to internal emails obtained by SaportaReport.

GOP political ties

Under Shaw, the DAFC had strong ties to North Fulton and Republican Party interests, which Turpeau is now working to reorient more toward South Fulton concerns, including with a different lobbying firm. Shaw and Paul were politically close as former Georgia Republican Party chairs.

The JDAMA shows some similar influence in leadership and lobbying. Besides the similar lobbying contract with Paul himself, JDAMA also in 2017 had Ashley Jenkins registered as a lobbyist. Jenkins is a former Sandy Springs City Council member who served there alongside Paul before he became mayor; according to her LinkedIn profile, she then worked as a lobbyist for Paul’s firm in 2014-2017. She later became district director for former Republican Congresswoman Karen Handel and is now government affairs director for an engineering industry group. Jenkins did not respond to a comment request.

Bolia also has strong ties to state and North Fulton Republican politics. According to his online biography, he once worked in the office of former Congressman Newt Gingrich, who held the same seat Handel later won, and worked as chief of staff for the Fulton County Commission in the 1990s. He has also served as executive director and political director of the state GOP and ran an influential Republican political action committee. In 2010, he founded the lobbying firm Peachtree Government Relations and has become one of the most prominent State Capitol lobbyists.

Asked about potential conflicts of interest between his lobbying work and membership on the two development authorities, Bolia said there have not been direct situations, especially since he does not lobby for authorities. He said that Decide DeKalb has adopted the county’s ethics policy, which he calls one of the strictest he has seen. He said it includes a provision that if he leaves the board, he cannot transact any business with the authority for 24 months.

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